Film / The Pentagon Wars

Sgt. Fanning: ...A troop transport that can't carry troops, a reconnaissance vehicle that's too conspicuous to do reconnaissance...
Colonel James Burton: ...and a quasi-tank that has less armor than a snowblower, but has enough ammo to take out half of D.C.
—A summary of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle

The Bradley Fighting Vehicle, as designed, was a deathtrap. If it were to be sent into combat without significant modifications, it could kill hundreds of our own soldiers. So what do you do when the top brass orders you to make it pass the tests, so that it can be deployed in the field on schedule and make them look good? Do you make a somber, tragic movie showing the depths to which humanity can sink? Do you do a scathing news exposé of the affair and demand accountability?

No, you make a made-for-TV Black Comedy starring Kelsey Grammer as a Maj. General Partridge who wants the Bradley in production no matter how much of a liability it is to its own crew, and Cary Elwes as Lt. Colonel Burton, who will do everything he can to prevent that from happening.

Hey, it makes as much sense as everything else that had anything to do with that Alleged Fighting Vehicle.


This 1998 made-for-TV movie provides examples of:

  • Analogy Backfire: General Partridge makes this mistake in front of a Congressional Committee when discussing the accuracy of the Paveway bomb, which missed 50% of the time.
    General Partridge: In baseball a guy who hits .400 is considered pretty damn great.
    Congressman: In baseball the losing team isn't killed by their opponents.
  • Armed Farces: A slightly more serious example, but the movie is very openly satirical.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: "Perhaps you'd like to tell us how much has been spent so far to develop the Bradley?"
  • Beleaguered Bureaucrat: Col. Smith, every time the Generals above him demand a change to the Bradley's design.
    • Partridge and his cronies attempt to turn Burton into this by almost-literally burying his office in 17 years' worth of paperwork and memos, attempting to render him simply too busy to oversee the joint tests.
  • Bittersweet Ending: While Burton does manage to expose the Bradley's flaws and force the army to design a much safer version, it's still not enough to change the system that created it in the first place. General Partridge still gets his promotion and his private sector job opportunities, while Burton is forced to retire.
  • Blatant Lies: How they ultimately resort to covering the Bradley's faults, right down to "revising" Col. Burton's scathing report to say the exact opposite of its original statements.
    • Early on, Burton witnesses a live-fire test with what he's told is a Soviet anti-tank rocket. He points out the writing on the rocket and its case isn't even in Cyrillic.
  • Blind Obedience: The lieutenant Partridge orders to rewrite Burton's scathing report doesn't even bother to ask why he's completely reversing the conclusions in the report or covering up his conclusions that the Bradley is dangerous.
  • Bothering by the Book: "We can't touch him, sir, it's by the book."
  • Brick Joke: "Paper cuts, Fanning. Vicious paper cuts."
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Burton has shades of this in the film. Highlights include stealing the door off of an ammo dump in order to test a Romanian rocket off the books.
  • Chewbacca Defense: The framing narrative is Partridge putting up one of these at a Congressional hearing explaining the development cycle of the Bradley.
  • Corrupt Bureaucrat: The majority of the officers involved in weapons testing are portrayed as careerists perpetuating an absurd system to ensure their promotion to General and guarantee lucrative jobs in the defense industry once they retire. Even General Smith, who was initially portrayed with some sympathy as the Bradley's original designer, ultimately played the game and refuses to help Burton more directly because he has too much to lose.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Secretary Weinberger gets a few, "According to this, one missile locked on to a ventilation fan in the latrine, and destroyed the latrine. Were we test-firing at latrines that day?"
  • Development Hell: The Bradley has been in development for 17 years as the movie opens. Sadly, Truth in Television: Most military projects of this sort takes decades. The problem is that the combination of having the companies designing component features locked in from the start (despite the fact that technology changes extremely rapidly compared to the production period) and the evolving realistic needs of the military, and the demands of the brass, result in a remarkably broken system for development. As this film demonstrates. invoked
    • Secretary of Defense Weinberger also chews out a group of Generals for a number of other programs that were in development at the time, including the M247 Sergeant York (cancelled due to cost overruns), the A-12 Avenger II (also cancelled due to cost overruns), and the UH-60 Black Hawk (one of the few exceptions, but it was still in development at the time).
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Partridge does not seem to realize Burton's motivations are genuine. At first he thinks Burton doesn't understand how the office-politics works, then he thinks Burton is trying to spite him, then he accuses Burton of trying to get media attention or trying to set Partridge up for his own career.
  • Executive Meddling: In-universe. The top brass change their minds several times about what kind of performance/armament they want the Bradley to have, often in mid-design. Causing major delays and budget overruns. Even worse, they tend to criticize the very features they requested previously, i.e. demanding a larger gun, and then complaining that it gives the vehicle a tank-like silhouette and will encourage the enemy to target it first.
    Designer: " Do you want me to put a sign on it in fifty languages, "I am a troop carrier, not a tank, please don't shoot at me"?"
  • False Reassurance: As spoken by Kelsey Grammer in perhaps the snarkiest moment in the movie.
    "General, were you for or against the Major's testing regimen?"
    "Absolutely not."
    "Absolutely not, yes? Or absolutely not, no?"
    "Absolutely not, absolutely."
  • The Film of the Book: Of The Pentagon Wars by USAF Colonel James G. Burton.
  • Half Truth: Technically, the Romanian anti-tank rocket was an enemy munition. But it's obviously crude and weak by the standards of munitions made by more serious threats such as the Soviet Union, which the test was obviously concerned with.
  • Hauled Before A Senate Subcommittee: Partridge
  • Heel–Face Turn: A subtle one, but the enlisted men in charge of preparing the Bradley prototypes for testing gradually come to believe in Burton and stop sabotaging the tests, even before he gives them a big speech, when his antics demonstrate both how horribly unsafe the vehicle is and that they finally had an officer not afraid to ruin his career to stand up for them.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: The enlisted men display a great degree of cynicism towards Burton because a neverending cycle of officers just like him have come through and ultimately decide to play the game because they want their promotion.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Partridge reassigns Burton to Alaska in an attempt to get rid of him...which ends up leaving him available to testify at the Senate subcommittee hearing, since he's no longer under the command of a general away in Germany unable to order him to testify.
  • How We Got Here: The movie starts near the end of the Bradley's development cycle when the vehicle is almost ready for production, and later spends about fifteen minutes showing how the Bradley was first conceptualized and then constantly subject to changing and contradictory demands in order to become the confused mess it was.
  • Hypocrite: Partridge accuses the Congressional committee of forgetting what the point of military procurement and development is and of not worrying about the soldiers in the field. Meanwhile, he's covering up the development of a vehicle he knows to be a deathtrap.
    • The contractors building the Bradley accepted extensive safety alterations for models intended for foreign buyers, but denied any safety flaws to the American military.
  • Implausible Deniability: The officers in charge of the Bradley program refuse to admit flaws that are blatantly obvious to anyone who looks.
    • Partridge does this a lot before the Senate, including denying any deceptiveness in obviously-rigged tests.
  • Instantly Proven Wrong: The climax. Partridge tells an assembled audience how amazing the Bradley is, only to watch it spectacularly explode seconds later from a single hit.
  • Jurisdiction Friction: Partridge is Army, Burton is Air Force, and only "work" together because the Pentagon has decided to make weapons testing a joint operation.
  • Just Following Orders: The excuse given by the men rigging the live-fire tests.
  • Karma Houdini: The generals in charge of the program. Despite trying to push through a vehicle that they knew to be a deathtrap likely to get American soldiers killed, most of them get high-paying jobs in defense contracting or get promoted.
  • Logical Fallacies: Partridge employs a number of techniques to misdirect people when he is forced to answer uncomfortable questions.
    • Appeal to Consequences: "We must not, will not, allow [enemies of the United States] to prevail for if we do, you can be certain that you and I and everyone else will never again enjoy the luxury of meeting in this building to debate anything!"
    • Argumentum Ad Lapidem: Partridge constantly disparages Burton's testing methods without clearly explaining why they're flawed.
    • Circular Reasoning: "If the fuel tanks were filled with fuel, there's a good chance the vehicle would have exploded."note 
    • Insane Troll Logic: Starting with his opening monologue and continuing throughout the movie, Partridge frequently employs non-sequiturs to deflect attention from the issues being raised.
  • Modern Major General: What, exactly, is Partridge good at other than careerism?
  • Moving the Goalposts: The various ways the Bradley “passes” its readiness tests.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Burton ultimately exposes the Bradley's dangerous flaws and forces extensive redesigning, which saves soldiers' lives in the Gulf War and equips the Army with a genuinely effective fighting vehicle instead of a notorious deathtrap. In reward, he's forced into retirement.
  • No Product Safety Standards: You'd really think a vehicle designed to go into combat wouldn't be made with armor that gives off toxic gas when struck by enemy fire.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Part of the system's M.O. is to place deliberately incompetent officers in charge of parts of the testing program that might reveal flaws. For instance, the department of Ruminant Procurement (in charge of procuring sheep) states that it will take around sixteen months to approve what type of sheep to use in the testing.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: The Pentagon is filled with them. Partridge is the most notable example.
  • Oh Crap!: Burton realizes the full extent of just how much Partridge is willing to work him out of the loop when he's told the Bradley is already in production despite not being tested.
    • Partridge and his cronies get this at the very end when they're told the Bradley's fuel and ammunition are "to spec" for a final demonstration. To spec as in, not rigged.
  • Only Sane Officer: Col. Burton is apparently the only officer in the joint testing program who realizes the Bradley isn't just a means to shuffle money and promotions around, but a vehicle that will carry American soldiers into combat and had better damn well be battle-ready.
  • Open Secret: Everybody involved in the program but Burton seems to already know the Bradley is deeply flawed.
  • Passive-Aggressive Kombat: Any time Burton and Partridge speak to one another directly.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Burton. It backfires somewhat, as it places him under the command of someone else other than the general that Partridge had been counting on to be unavailable to authorize Burton's testifying at the committee hearing.
  • Soldiers at the Rear: Burton uses the story of the M-16 to accuse the enlisted men working on the Bradley of not caring because they never knew anyone who died because of defective equipment. This is deliberate however; as enlisted men, a lot of them probably did have close friends who died in combat because of defective equipment and Burton knows this.
  • Stopped Caring: Many officers at the Pentagon are so jaded and used to the system that they no longer care about the end result and the men on the ground. Also goes for the enlisted men at the testing facility, who get a "white knight" like Burton every other year and see them inevitably choose their careers over doing the right thing.
  • Take a Third Option: Col. Burton can either skip the vaporifics test or wait at least sixteen months for ruminants (sheep) to be approved by an office deliberately dragging its feet. Instead, he just goes out and buys sheep from a local farmer himself.
  • Tank Goodness: Averted to high heaven with the Bradley.
  • The Inspector Is Coming: Burton is the inspector, and the testing facility hastily tries to cover up obvious design flaws and flawed testing methods.
  • Truth in Television: The kind of problems satirized here happen in any large bureaucracy. Nobody wants to tell the truth because it would make them look inefficient by comparison and essentially end their careers.
  • Undisclosed Funds: Averted - $14 Billion, with a "B".
  • Vast Bureaucracy: The Pentagon.
  • You Didn't Ask: One reason why Burton was never told about the aluminum gas study.

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